You know you're in trouble when Bill Frist makes a fool out of you in an impromptu scientific debate on a nationally-televised talk show, especially if it is your own nationally-televised talk show.
Frist, if you will recall, is a heart surgeon and erstwhile Republican Senate majority leader who, in 2001, damaged his reputation as a doctor, if not a politician, by challenging the accepted diagnosis that Terri Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state based only on viewing a videotape. This "learned" opinion was offered in support of federal legislation hastily constructed to prevent the removal of a feeding tube that was keeping that brain-dead woman alive. His professional misbehavior in this case will serve for years as on object lesson in the improper application of medical authority.
That said, it appears Bill Frist knows his way around peer-reviewed medical journals and appreciates the significance of the results of well-run clinical trials. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Bill Maher, his opponent in their argument over the safety and effectiveness of the H1N1 (swine) flu vaccine. It would be an understatement to say that Frist emerged as the victor in this dust-up with Maher on Real Time with Bill Maher; to use the vernacular of YouTube where this clip of their debate has been posted, Maher was thoroughly pwned. This blog in The New York Times reaches a similar conclusion.
The combination of intellectual dishonesty and scientific ignorance exhibited by Maher in this short exchange is especially disappointing to me, since, prior to my learning about his association with the anti-vaccination movement, I had held him in high regard, both as a comic talent and as a useful instigator of public discussion on controversial issues of the day. But, by characterizing the government as being categorically untrustworthy and by asserting that vaccinations are intrinsically ineffective, Maher demonstrated a willingness to resort both to the kind of demagoguery popular with right-wing conspiracy theorists and to the kind of misunderstanding of the theory of evolution popular with know-nothing creationists.
So why single out Bill Maher for criticism? After all, there is no shortage of anti-vaccination alarmists, stirring unfounded fears about this important public health matter, although, admittedly, few with the kind of national audience that Maher commands. What makes Maher a conspicuous target for me is not his opposition to respectable medical research, per se, but the fact that, as a very public atheist, he ordinarily champions the cause for the skeptical examination of the very kind of irrational claims that support his anti-vaccination position.
Maher's atheism has probably best become known as a result of his 2008 movie, Religulous, an entertaining and, at times, thought-provoking road trip through the world of mainstream and fringe religious belief. The film consists of (mostly) friendly encounters between Maher and God-fearing folk, during which the usually iconoclastic Maher (mostly) sets aside his trademark mocking tone and, instead, engages his opponents with bemused curiosity and a modicum of respect.
I imagine that the relative popular success of Religulous was one reason why Maher was chosen by the Atheist Alliance International to receive the 2009 Richard Dawkins Award at their convention this month. Yet, given Maher's views on vaccination, how can his selection for this honor by a group that consistently identifies itself with scientific rationalism be explained?
As far as I can tell, this misstep has something to do with a shift of the focus within the atheist community, where championing of the power of reason has been displaced, to some extent, by blanket opposition to religious belief. The resulting difference of opinion has given rise to a tension among non-believers which was featured in a recent story on NPR's Morning Edition (A Bitter Rift Divides Atheists). This dispute - not unlike the one that raged between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks in the years prior to the Russian Revolution of 1917 * - is primarily one concerning tactics with, on one extreme, the "live-and-let-live" atheists, endorsing an ecumenical form of constructive engagement with believers and, on the other, the "take-no-prisoners" atheists, advocating relentless confrontation brimming with contempt and ridicule.
What is often lost in this internecine squabble is that the fundamental intellectual program of atheism should be based not on opposition to religion, in and of itself, but on opposition to that kind of unreason upon which religion often relies, which can be at times a touchstone for harmless personal observance and at others, the cornerstone of despicable public policy.
Sometimes the purveyors of unreason emerge from within our own ranks. Or, as Walt Kelly observed in his most memorable Pogo quotation, "we have met the enemy and he is us."
Which brings me back to Bill Maher.
While the "zero-tolerance" atheist commanders have been directing a frontal assault on religious belief in all its forms, an agent of corrosive unreason, namely Maher, not only has been operating openly within their home territory, but, indeed, has been receiving citations for his meritorious service to their cause. Ironically, it would be hard to identify a religious leader in this country today who represents more of a concrete threat to the health and safety of his fellow Americans than Bill Maher. Encouraging his viewers, specifically pregnant women, not to receive the H1N1 vaccine is so reckless that it borders on the criminal.
The potential danger of such misguided advice was illustrated in an article from last week's Science Times, Flu Story - A Pregnant Woman's Ordeal, which details the story of Aubrey Opdyke, who, as a result of contracting swine flu in late June, lost her baby, was hospitalized for four months, spent five weeks in a coma, suffered six collapsed lungs and a near-fatal seizure.
Although Maher would likely dismiss Aubrey's story as an ignorable anecdote, as he did Bill Frist's report of the death of an otherwise healthy man in his thirties from an H1N1 infection, the facts of the matter are that her personal tragedy is incontrovertibly linked to H1N1 and that the threat posed by the swine flu virus to pregnant women has been established in carefully scrutinized epidemiological studies. In all likelihood, had an H1N1 vaccine been available before Aubrey was infected and had she been vaccinated with it, she and her baby would be living happy, healthy lives today.
If the insidious recommendations of Maher and other anti-vaccination crusaders are widely adopted, many more people will become infected with H1N1, some of these will experience a fate similar to Aubrey Opdyke's, and others, ones far worse.
So, now is the time for the atheist community to step up to the plate, thank Bill Maher for his service to the cause of reason in other regards, but remind him, in no uncertain terms, that the fight for rationality is not restricted to defeating dangerous religious beliefs, and that it must also confront so-called scientific claims not grounded in the results of systematic peer-reviewed research, especially claims that jeopardize public health.
* The Mensheviks were thoroughly pwned.
Anti-Vaccination - A Real Crime with Bill Maher by Marc Merlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at thoughtsarise.blogspot.com.